Tea Party Stumbles As GOP Establishment Flexes Fundraising Strength

May 19, 2014
Originally published on May 19, 2014 7:54 pm

Tea Party candidates did well in GOP primary elections in 2010 and 2012; this year, not so much. Part of this lack of success is because establishment candidates have generally out-raised them, and establishment-aligned outside groups are no longer reluctant to get involved in primaries.

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A tug-of-war continues between Tea Party movement and establishment Republicans. We'll see how that plays out tomorrow with GOP primaries coming in six states. In 2012 and 2010, Tea Party candidates took out several establishment candidates as mainstream groups stayed out of the primaries.

But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, this year it's different.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: For one example, take Kentucky. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell is seeking a sixth term. Businessman Matt Bevin won Tea Party support early on and he looked like big trouble for McConnell. But on the eve of the primary, McConnell easily leads Bevin in the polls. He out-raised Bevin almost seven-to-one. Tea Party groups did spend about $2 million trying to help Bevin.

IAN VANDEWALKER: But McConnell, just in his own spending, has already spent $10 milion.

OVERBY: Ian Vandewalker analyzed the first-quarter money in Senate primaries. He's with the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University Law School. He says this is typical of the way the tide is running.

VANDEWALKER: In the high-money races that we've looked at, where there is a Tea Party versus establishment character to the race, independent spending tends to favor Tea Party candidates.

OVERBY: But that provides an edge of just a few hundred thousand dollars, while at the same time...

VANDEWALKER: Establishment Republicans are out-raising their Tea Party opponents on average by a margin of 5 to 1.

OVERBY: And in some races, Tea Party groups find that for the first time they're getting big-footed this year by well-funded establishment groups, especially the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The Chamber and its Republican allies view the Tea Party as too extreme. So in Kentucky, the Chamber already has spent a million dollars to help McConnell. That's more than the top four pro-Tea Party groups combined.

The chamber looms large in other races, too. But meanwhile, the Tea Party groups often lack a focused message. David Keating is president of the conservative Center for Competitive Politics. He says the Tea Party groups need to pull together.

DAVID KEATING: Everyone wants to say their own piece and say it in the way they'd like to say it.

OVERBY: And that lessens their impact.

KEATING: You'll see a whole range of activity, see a whole range of different messages, and you'll see a whole range in the amount of money that's spent by each group.

OVERBY: Besides going after Tea Party-backed candidates, the party establishment is going after the Tea Party groups themselves. On Bloomberg TV last week, former Republican National chairman Haley Barbour even said the Tea Party movement was being manipulated by political entrepreneurs.

HALEY BARBOUR: It's not being driven by Tea Party, grassroots, Republican, conservative activists. It's being driven by a handful of people getting rich doing it.

OVERBY: Some Tea Party insiders also admit the movement needs to do better. Dan Backer is a campaign finance lawyer whose clients include several Tea Party groups. He says one thing they need is stronger candidates. He dismisses Kentucky's Matt Bevin this way.

DAN BACKER: I met him once. Perfectly nice guy. But he's got no business running for Senate.

OVERBY: And Backer says that next time, the candidate searches and the organizing will start much earlier.

BACKER: In the first half of 2015, you're going to see a substantial increase in the amount of activity - early activity - by these Tea Party organizations.

OVERBY: And so that national Tea Party groups will be targeting important races and consulting with local leaders, so they won't have to see favorite candidates flame out and see their own advertising dollars wasted.

Peter Overby, NPR News Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.